It's Russia versus the West again, this time playing out in tiny Georgia

Demonstrators wave Georgian national flags during an opposition protest against the foreign influence bill at the Parliamentary building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)
Demonstrators wave Georgian national flags during a protest against the foreign influence bill at the parliamentary building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Tuesday. (Shakh Aivazov / Associated Press)

A tug of war between Moscow and the West is playing out in Georgia — not the U.S. state, but the small Black Sea nation tucked into the Caucasus mountain region. And the political stakes just rose dramatically.

Georgia’s parliament on Tuesday overrode a presidential veto of a measure that critics have dubbed the “Russian law” — dealing a crippling setback to hopes by pro-democracy forces that the former Soviet republic will be able to one day join the European Union.

Opponents consider the bill a heavy-handed attempt to stifle media freedom and muzzle civil society, and have staged months of massive street protests to try to block the measure. Now, barring some last-minute reversal, the parliamentary speaker is set to sign it into law within five days if the president refuses to do so.

“It’s utterly pernicious,” Hans Gutbrod, a professor of public policy at Ilia State University in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, said of the bill. “This is a watershed moment.”

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The EU, which had warned that enacting the measure would “negatively affect” Georgia’s chances of being accepted into the 27-member bloc, said it “deeply regrets” the veto override.

“The Georgian people overwhelmingly want to join the EU,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on X, adding that the bloc was “considering all options” in response to the veto override. She urged the Georgian government to “recommit to the EU aspirations.”

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller suggested that Georgia’s government could find itself cut off from U.S. aid if it tilts away from democratic values.

“We have to reassess all of that if the Georgian government is going to now regard the United States and other Western partners not as partners anymore, but as adversaries,” he told reporters.

The Biden administration had previously described the measure as undermining democracy, and warned of possible sanctions against its backers.

At first glance, the bill in question could seem like a matter of mere bureaucracy. It requires media organizations, nongovernmental groups — many of which rely on foreign funding — and nonprofit entities to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20% of their funds from outside the country.

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In practice, critics say, the requirement would have a profoundly chilling impact on free expression and civil society in Georgia, a country of about 3.7 million people. Nongovernmental organizations could be subject to heavy financial penalties or be closed down altogether.

“It’s a way of stigmatizing these groups — a very familiar pattern from the Soviet past,” said political analyst Kornely Kakachia, who directs a think tank in Tbilisi.

The measure is modeled after a nearly identical one in Russia that has been wielded by the Kremlin to crack down on political opposition. After a failed bid to push through a similar measure a year ago, critics say Moscow actively worked behind the scenes to engineer the bill’s passage this time around. The Kremlin denies involvement.

Georgia’s parliament is controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which had campaigned on a pro-EU platform, but then began taking steps to weaken a membership bid, culminating in this bill.

Tuesday’s vote by lawmakers — a raucous affair during which a member of the ruling party drenched the leader of the opposition with water as he was speaking — overrode a May 18 veto by President Salome Zourabichvili, a political independent whose post is largely symbolic. The president had denounced the bill as hindering Georgia’s efforts toward becoming a "full member of the free and democratic world.”

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Georgia’s ruling party insists the measure is meant to prevent foreign forces from destabilizing the country. But critics call it the most determinedly authoritarian effort yet to snuff out pro-Western sentiment that has come to prevail in the three decades of independence.

The conflict intensified at the end of 2023, when the EU granted Georgia candidate status as a step toward membership in the bloc. For much of this year, demonstrations denouncing the foreign-agent measure grew larger and larger — and were met by increasing shows of government force.

Footage from Tbilisi repeatedly showed police using tear gas and water cannons to try to break up enormous crowds in the city’s historic center. On Tuesday evening, after the vote, riot police were again out in force.

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The ruling party was founded by a pro-Moscow oligarch and former prime minister named Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose wealth is directly tied to Russia. He and his party deny they are trying to push Georgia into Moscow’s orbit — but the crisis has played itself out against the backdrop of President Vladimir Putin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, another neighbor whose sovereignty Russia has violently rejected.

Like Ukraine, Georgia gained its independence after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. But shaking off Russia’s grip has not been easy. In 2008, Russia and Georgia went to war over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.

In order to stay on a track toward EU membership, Georgia would have to make progress on certain key benchmarks, including upholding fundamental rights and protecting civil society.

Kakachia, who directs the Georgian Institute of Politics, said even though the struggle has weighty implications for both the West and Russia, pro-democracy forces in his country had a difficult time getting the attention of the outside world.

“Georgia is not a priority right now,” he said, citing the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, continent-wide elections in Europe next month and the American presidential election in November. “And this benefits the government.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.